The magic movie man
October 13, 2017
Ross Woodbury can still remember when he saw his first movie in a theatre.
"It was Lawrence of Arabia," Woodbury said. "I was 6 or 7 and I thought it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen. Of course, I was too young to understand the plot, but I still vividly recall the incredible imagery and the sheer scale of it all. Peter O'Toole in that swirling white robe, the camel caravans stretching across the horizon.
"The cinematography, the musical score, everything about it was larger than life. I think it was then that I fell in love with the movies."
That love affair has lasted for decades. If there's anyone in the area who's earned the title of "the movie man" (a moniker with which he says people often address him), it's Woodbury.
Founder of the Magic Theatre in Nevada City (and manager for its first 20 years) and the co-founder of the original Nevada City Film Festival, he's had his hand in almost every local cinematic venture that's come along.
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Born in suburban Los Angeles (into what he calls a "deeply dysfunctional family,"), he escaped whenever he could into the nearest cinema, which was miles away and which he usually had to traverse to on foot.
"It was worth it," he said. "For me, movies were an escape from reality — which I hated — into another universe of glamour and romance and excitement. I didn't really care that much what the movie was or who was in it. It just had to have those glowing images on that huge screen and I'd be blissed out."
At the age of 12, Woodbury moved to Nevada County with his family when his parents bought a retail store in Grass Valley.
He graduated from Nevada Union High School and attended Sacramento State University, earning a degree and teaching credential in Mass Communications. But most of his time, not surprisingly, was going to movies.
"There was a great little theatre in downtown Sacramento called the J Street Cinema. I practically lived there. They'd have double-bills and change them several times a week. So my friends and I would go see a pair of classic Hitchcocks on, say, Monday, then a couple of Buster Keatons on Wednesday and the newest Truffaut or Kurosawa or Fellini on the weekend. This was all before the advent of home video, of course. So I always tell everyone that I got my degree from Sac State but my education from the J Street Cinema."
The start of the Nevada City Film Festival
Returning to Nevada County, Woodbury wondered if he could translate his preoccupation into a livelihood.
"The Sundance Film Festival in Telluride had just started and I thought, 'If they can do it there, why can't we do it here?'" said Woodbury.
With the aid of two friends, they rented the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, advertised for independent and amateur films to be submitted and searched around for a big name to be their Guest of Honor.
They struck a home run their first time out when legendary director Frank Capra agreed to come to town.
For his appearance on stage at the Nevada Theatre, the festival showed what is now regarded as Capra's masterpiece: "It's a Wonderful Life."
"That movie wasn't as well known then as it is now. Many people had never seen it. We had a packed house and at the end of the film, people were openly crying. When the screen went dark and Capra walked on-stage, he received a standing ovation that seemed like it went on for twenty minutes. It was amazing. I still get people who come up to me on the street and tell me how fondly they remember that night."
The second Nevada City Film Festival, a year later, was equally ambitious. This time, however, they had two guests of honor.
One was director Vincente Minnelli, perhaps best known today for being the father of Liza Minnelli and the ex-husband of Judy Garland.
But during the 1940s and 1950s, Minnelli was MGM's star director of musicals, creating such enduring classics as "An American in Paris," "The Band Wagon" and "Meet Me in St. Louis."
"Minnelli's films are amazingly lush and romantic," Woodbury said. "They seem more like Technicolor dreams than anything found in the real world."
For his tribute at the Nevada Theatre, they showed "Lust for Life," starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh.
A romantic biographical drama filmed in the actual French towns and villages where the real Van Gogh lived and worked, it's been acclaimed as one of the best-ever films about the life of an artist.
Accompanying it was what many people consider Minnelli's masterpiece, the 1958 musical "Gigi" starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.
A huge box-office success upon its initial release, it went on to win nine Academy Awards (including Best Director for Minnelli) and is generally considered the last great MGM musical.
The year's other guest of honor was animation wizard Chuck Jones, affectionately remembered today for his classic Warner Brothers cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Pepe Le Pew and The Roadrunner.
The festival showcased a number of vintage Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies and it was, in Woodbury's words, "like a wonderful trip back in time to our childhoods. Chuck was incredibly witty and gracious and charming and the audience just loved him."
Jones also presented Woodbury with a gift which he still has and treasures: an autographed sketch of Bugs and Daffy drawn on the spot. "I'll never part with it," he said.
During this period, Woodbury was also searching around for a commercial space to install a repertory cinema like the one he had frequented in Sacramento.
The Magic Theatre
After bouncing around from spot to spot, the newly-christened Magic Theatre (named after a place "for madmen only" in Hermann Hesse's novel "Steppenwolf") finally settled down into its current location on Argall Way in Nevada City.
Woodbury selected the films, introduced them, ran the projector and even popped the popcorn.
"We had two screens originally," he said, "with first-run art films on Screen One and classics on Screen Two."
Both screens were profitable, he said, but it was too much work running back and forth from screen to screen, so he decided to scale it back to just one screen.
"The Magic Theatre was very loose and funky in those days," Woodbury said. "We always showed a cartoon before each feature, which the audiences loved, and we also showed a lot of free films as a 'thank-you' to the community.
"When Roy Rogers passed away, we showed two of his westerns, including Nevada City, set in you know-where. A number of audience members showed up wearing their dime-store cowboy hats and toy six-guns, which I thought was hilarious."
A matinee screening of a Lassie feature was also memorable because Woodbury had invited audience members to bring along their dogs — and they did.
"It was great. It should have been chaos but it was fine," he said. "The dogs were surprisingly well-behaved and I'd swear that some of them actually watched the movie."
The Magic Theatre also seemed to be a local social magnet.
"I bet I've had a dozen couples over the years who told me that they met at the Magic Theatre and later got married. When they eventually had kids, they brought them to the theatre for their first movie.
"Needless to say, I thought that was wonderful. I've also had people who told me that they moved to Nevada City specifically because they had come to the Magic Theatre at some point and figured that any community that could support such a neat little cinema must be a great place to live. They were right, of course."
After all these movies ("somewhere in the thousands," he reckons) over the years, does he have a favorite?
"I get asked that all the time," he said. "I've always thought that if you go into a theatre and see a great movie, you should come out a different person. Hopefully a little wiser or kinder or more insightful. And although it changes with my mood, I'd still say that "It's a Wonderful Life" is probably still my overall favorite."
But why that film specifically?
"Well, it's tremendously entertaining and incredibly well put-together. It's probably Jimmy Stewart's all-time greatest performance. And it has some moral messages that are as timely as ever. Stand up to bullies, even when they're rich and powerful. Try not to give in to greed, which — let's face it — is practically an epidemic in the world today. And always remember that we all are connected and that when you help the other guy when he's down, you don't just help him. You're helping everyone, including yourself."
He pauses: "Pretty good lessons, don't you think?"
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